Friday, April 23, 2021

The #Midwessay: Rilla Askew, Belonging

Ancient mountains (now hills), ancient ocean beds (now plains and prairie), tornado alley, tablelands, highlands, cross timbers, caves, the Ozarks, cypress swamps and forest—we've got it all in Oklahoma, baby. This place favors writing about landscape—it's embedded in us in a way I suppose other writers feel. For me, why I write about Oklahoma, why I care about its history and future, the legacies it will and won't claim, has something to do with the sight of a flat blooming canola field straddling a wet red dirt road beneath striated grey and white clouds after a spring storm. And, that this place has been and is filled with a mix of people—displaced, wandering, outcasts who are still often overlooked. The late Barry Lopez (RIP; not an Oklahoman) wrote, "If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly, about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better." Each of the Oklahoma writers for this series speak to the physical place well, and each asks us to consider what that place (and its people) has to offer, or not. —Liz Blood, Oklahoma Coordinator



Rilla Askew


You could shrink a map of the continental U.S., lop off the protruding tips of Maine, Florida, and Texas, superimpose that map on Oklahoma, and the regional identities would match up. In Oklahoma, Back East (Tulsa) meets the Deep South (Little Dixie) meets the American Southwest (Wichita Mountains) meets the mythic West (the Panhandle), meets the Midwest—or one version of the Midwest—in the tallgrass prairie region along our northern border with Kansas. That’s where I grew up, in a white-dominated midsized town, Bartlesville, where we rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals, listened to WLS Top 40 Radio out of Chicago, and on weekends, for entertainment, drove a twisty two-lane blacktop 25 miles north to Caney, Kansas, to barhop.  
     Some maps of the Midwest include Oklahoma. Most do not. But my piece is Midwestern, or the piece of my raising is. How do I know? My hometown was built up from a prairie outpost to a thriving company town by Midwesterners, particularly an Iowa barber whose last name graced a plethora of Phillips 66 service stations, downtown office buildings, and my daddy’s paycheck. The city’s most famous building, the Price Tower, was designed by the nation’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, a Midwesterner who described his anomalous skyscraper as “the tree that escaped the crowded forest.” My daddy helped build that lonesome-tree skyscraper on the prairie. 
     In Oklahoma we claim several pieces of the Midwestern character. Friendliness, for sure. Oklahoma has it in spades—so much so, in fact, that we had “Drive Friendly’ enshrined on state highway signs.
     Anonymity? Check. Who outside the region can tell you where Iowa lies in relation to Indiana, or Ohio to Illinois, or Oklahoma to any of the above? 
     America’s Heartland? Check. To confirm this, just review news stories about the Oklahoma City Bombing. Count how many times the term “heartland” is used.
     Flyover state? Check.
     Self-identified decent, hardworking, neighborly people? Check. 
     Wishful white people who paper over the darker parts of their history? Oh, double, triple, quadruple check. Here I’m talking about our intentional suppression of the Tulsa Race Massacre, our sanitized reframing of the Trail of Tears, and other such collective forgetting.  
     But I realize I could be wrong. Maybe public amnesia about the dark past is not a classic Midwestern characteristic. Maybe Midwesterners in Minnesota actively recognize the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men at Mankato in 1862, and Indiana teaches its youth about the 1930 spectacle lynching at Marion, and Chicago deeply and truly owns the 1919 racist assaults that devastated the South Side. Maybe public reckoning with such dark histories has long been a part of Midwestern ethos. If so, then my home state is only now just beginning to belong to the true heart of the Midwest.

Rilla Askew traces her roots to Indian Country to the late 1800s. She is the author of six books, including Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place, a book of essays surveying the complex history of Oklahoma, her home state, and Fire in Beulah, a historical novel centered around the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. 

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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